The Killing Time – Scotland 1685

Carslaw in The Life and Letters of James Renwick emotively describes the Killing Time thus.

Extirpation ! that was now the word of the powers of darkness who ruled the country. The execution of the laws was committed wholly and absolutely to the soldiers. They had no limited instructions: they had powers and express orders to go through the whole country and kill; kill in the house, kill in the field, kill one or many, as they should meet them; kill with full indemnity against consequences, kill at their own discretion, and kill instantly and upon the spot. These times are still named with a shudder, `The killing times of Scotland.

Covenanter lore in Scotland is very much bound up with the terrible events of what became known as “ The Killing Time “ This was the period from the summer of 1684 until the autumn of 1685 when persecution of the Covenanters was at its peak. Two contemporary writers place it otherwise : Patrick Walker begins it from15 August; the Rev Alexander Shields from the date of Charles II death on 6 February 1685. However, the fact remains that this was a period of hyper activity against the Covenanters with most of the executions taking place. It is worth noting that this period also covered the unexpected death of King Charles II; the accession of his brother, the Catholic James VII (II of England ) proclaimed on 10 February 1685; and the ill fated risings of the 9th Earl of Argyll in Scotland in conjunction with that of the Duke of Monmouth in England.

With the hardening of attitudes towards the Covenanters there was also a long backlog of cases yet to be heard by the courts . In 1684 the Justiciary Courts and circuit courts were set up to enforce policy and attempt to speed up justice. A policy evolved of clearing the prisons, which amongst other actions, meant that there was a much quicker process with immediate sentences of death and a requirement to execute with six hours after sentence for those found guilty. The Circuit Courts set up in September 1684 were given the objective of `extinguishing disaffection` and a long list of some twenty eight issues that were to be addressed. It is difficult to conceive how the government thought that enforcement of Draconian legislation was going to help the people like or love the monarch. It was the rule of terror pure and simple.

The gradual and systematic increase in the persecution of the Covenanters began in 1660 with the Restoration of King Charles II. It was soon clear that he had reneged on his former promises and set about imposing episcopacy on Scotland. In 1662 there was the `outing` of over 300 ministers from their livings. The policy was aided and abetted by the prelates, especially James Sharp, Archbishop of St Andrews who made great use of the Court of High Commission to pursue his former colleagues. There was a range of Indulgences, which gradually isolated the dissidents, while pressure was put on the landowners to conform by taking the Test, and paying substantial sums of money as bonds for good behaviour. The defiance of the Covenanters under Richard Cameron,  and the Declaration at Sanquhar , hardened attitudes considerably. Cameron`s early death at Ayrsmoss was a deadly example of what was to come.

The trigger for the `Killing Time` was the Privy Council`s reaction to James Renwick`s Apologetical Declaration on 24 October 1684. The Privy Council may well have been afraid of the impending arrival and possible rebellion led by the Earl of Argyll and were seeking to round up troublemakers. Whatever the reasons they framed the loyalty oath known as the “ Abjuration Oath “. This Oath was the vehicle for authorising on the spot execution, in the presence of two witnesses, of any person who refused to take it.

After Renwick`s Declaration and the introduction of the Abjuration Oath there was a period of intense activity against the Renwickites and retaliatory actions. These included the murder of the Curate of Carsphairn on 11 December 1684; a raid on Kirkcudbright jail on 16 December and a skirmish at the Bridge of Dee on 18 December in which eight Covenanters were captured or killed. From about January 1685 the government’s action was extended to all Presbyterians, not just Renwick and his followers, and even previously indulged ministers came under attack.

Following the death of Charles II and the accession of his brother James in February 1685 , events soon took on the ugly hue of the old Roman Church and the Inquisition. James made no bones about his preferences and declared all out war on any dissenters and anyone whomsoever contested his stated absolute supremacy of all and everything. During his time as viceroy in Scotland he had gathered a group of place men about him and had infiltrated positions of authority with his supporters. His pawn, William Duke of Queensberry was responsible for passing the Acts of persecution in the 1685 Parliament that met in Edinburgh between 23 April and 22 August. Such was their tenor that the Earl of Melfort accused Queensberry of exceeding his authority to which James issued a letter of approbation and exoneration – the acts were the decrees of King James. For the rest of his thankfully short reign, James merely used his royal prerogative and issued diktats of the royal will. The fact that a restoration of the Catholic Church was likely was reflected by the discontinuance of the official commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot in Edinburgh (Fountainhalls Notices, 5 November 1685) ; no sermon was preached and no salute of cannon from the castle ramparts took place. The object apparently was not to upset any papists.

The politics of the Killing Time were very complex but the stark intensification of action and execution of Covenanters was crystal clear. John Howie`s The Scots Worthies is an often quoted source for the numbers of Presbyterians who died or were subject of `the utmost hardships and extremities`. The total number given is 18,000 which is for the twenty eight years of persecution from 1660 to 1688.

We shall never know the exact numbers but suffice it that very many gained the martyrs crown and are known unto God. Among whom were no less than 57 persons from Nithsdale, commemorated on the Nithsdale Cross, in the Old Dalgarnock Churchyard.